Life and sun: the writer and his time

Issue 2/1988 | Archives online, Authors

Frans Emil Sillanpää (1888–1964), one of Finland’s most read authors, was born in the parish of Hämeenkyrö, amid the farmlands of Western Finland. In forty years he published twenty works: novels and short stories. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1939; his works have been translated into more than two dozen languages. His centenary year produced exhibitions, lectures, publications, readings, radio and stage plays, radio and television programmes.

Sillanpää, biologist, realist and mystic: literary scholars in Finland have always disputed about his qualities as an author. Depth psychology, D.H. Lawrence, nature lyricism, Henri Bergson, deep-rooted peasant philosophy, intertextuality, life worship – all can be found in Sillanpää’s work. Modern or old­ fashioned, a regional writer, or an internationally renowned Nobel Prize author?

From time to time the world press prints survey assessments, rather like score cards, of the Nobel literature prizes. They are usually intended to rap the knuckles of the Swedish Academy, but at the same time they attach a value on the international literary market to the recipients of the awards.

Finland’s only Nobel laureate, F.E. Sillanpää, who received his prize in 1939, seems at present to rate low internationally. Writers awarded the prize at around the same time seem, it is true, to have suffered a similar fate: his predecessor Pearl S. Buck, and his post-war successors Johannes V. Jensen and Gabriela Mistral, although the latter do have their own purely local importance. There are some literary histories that allow Sillanpää just a couple of lines along with other regionalists and describers of peasant life, such as the Pole Władysław Reymont, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz of Switzerland, and Jean Giono of France.

The list of Sillanpää translations is, nevertheless, surprisingly long and demonstrates that his work has been rendered into other languages even in recent years. The small language areas, in particular, have translated him enthusiastically, but there are also a number of French and German translations. Even if his position in the international critical markets is not high, it seems that he is still read and enjoyed at many levels, particularly in eastern Europe. Internationally, as at home in Finland, he cannot yet be pronounced dead.

Who, then, are the most important prose writers of the interwar period? Since there are no objective criteria, I have made my own list of the ‘top ten’, and compared it to a number of literary histories and surveys. My list consists of the following writers: James Joyce from Ireland; Virginia Woolf from England; Marcel Proust and André Gide from France; Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse from Germany; and, from America, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Even in selecting these ten it is possible to have doubts – should it be Andrei Bely or Mikhail Bulgakov, or Robert Musil or Hermann Broch? This team of international prose finalists can serve as the framework to which I shall try to compare Sillanpää.

I am looking for answers to three main questions. How was Sillanpää seen in Finland against the European literature of the day? With whom does he have similarities of viewpoint or narrative technique, judged now with the benefit of hindsight? And, finally, did Sillanpää in any way step out of the framework of his own time – do his works show any characteristics that went unnoticed at the time, but now arouse interest?

The year of publication of Sillanpää’s first work, Elämä ja aurinko (‘Life and sun’), 1916, was a particularly fine literary vintage in Finland. Edith Södergran, Hagar Olsson and Aaro Hellaakoski also published their first works. Juhani Aho published his Rauhan erakko (‘Hermit of peace’), Eino Leino the second volume of Helkavirret (‘Whitsongs’), and Maiju Lassila Kuolleista herännyt (‘Woken from the dead’). The new generation was stepping forward.

One of the immediate senses in which the main character of Sillanpää’s first work, Elias, differs from earlier heroes of Finnish literature is in his behaviour. He loves two women, the shy Lyyli and the less shy Olga, has a relationship with both of them and, in the end, fails to get either. The earlier Don Juan of the Finnish novel, Olavi in Linnankoski’s Laulu tulipunaisesta kukasta (‘Song of a fire reel flower’), certainly flies from flower to flower like some kind of super-bee, but calms clown in the end to give the novel a beautiful, moralistic ending. This was the general pattern for other novels, too. Sillanpää’s Elias, in contrast, carries on with his women without restraint, spontaneously, without regrets or even, apparently, any significant feelings of guilt. In the Finnish cultural climate of the time, this was new and, what was more, it was morally questionable. Although Onerva and Kianto, for example, had already begun to stretch the bounds of conventional morality, Sillanpää was branded as an erotic writer, and this label was to follow him long and close.

In 1936 the literary critic Lauri Viljanen published a collection of essays entitled Taisteleva humanismi (‘Militant humanity’), in which he gave a cross-section of the world literature of his time. The book is still incomparably informative, particularly as an expression of the liberal viewpoint of the time. The main theme is announced in the foreword: ‘The intensification of vital life and the championship of the harmonious individual against intolerant politics and moralistic ideologies’. The key word, in fact, is ‘life­worship’, and it is represented for Viljanen by the figure of D.H. Lawrence, who was then little known in Finland. Indeed, Viljanen unites Sillanpää’s and Lawrence’s names in the title of one of his essays: ‘F.E. Sillanpää, the D.H. Lawrence of Satakunta province’.

Life-worship was one of the slogans of the time. It may seem strange today, but it was one of the central weapons in the polemic arsenal of the 1930s. The concept was, of course, indefinite, and included certain mystical characteristics. The life­-worshippers wanted to acknowledge the vital primal forces of existence, and emphasised the primitive base from which they believed all art and culture rose. Many saw this as happening most clearly in Lawrence’s work, which Viljanen describes as the symbol of the ‘new sexual morality’. In Sillanpää’s first novel, it is noticeable how often the world ‘life’ is repeated, right down to the title.

The roots of ‘life-worship’ can be followed back to Nietzsche, and to its influence can be traced, in addition to Lawrence’s work, Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf. But it did not form the basis of a literary school as such. It was a question of a larger phenomenon: an upheaval in human concepts whose results were also widely to be seen in narrative technique.

Although Sillanpää has clear predecessors, notably Juhani Aho and Knut Hamsun, his conception of character diverges sharply from theirs. This is already apparent in the early works. Sillanpää’s essay Omistani ja omilleni (‘About and for my family’, 1923) can be read as a statement of his philosophy of life:

‘I am at present of the opinion that the nature of the individual, with all it entails, forms a whole; that the duality that “body” and “soul” appear to denote is only apparent. It is not that one or other of those factors is in some kind of dominant position , but that there is some kind of harmonious correspondence between them that we have not yet clearly noted.’

The same insistence on the close unity of ‘body’ and ‘soul’ can be traced through­out Sillanpää’s work, and receives a graphic description in the novel Miehen tie (‘A man’s road’) as late as 1932; in it, Paavo Ahrola discovers the true meaning of his life when he meets a woman who brings together those two aspects of his personality. In another way, too, the concept of the wholeness of the human personality is apparent in his work; there are clear layers of different depths in his characters, different levels of consciousness, which only gradually become clear to the characters themselves.

In terms of narrative technique, there are two ways of dealing with this sort of perspective on the different levels of consciousness, the depth of personality and the power of sexuality as a force behind human activity. When the point of view is closely allied with the character experiencing events or, in the new language of narratology, the focaliser, indefinite sentiments can be described in indefinite, veiled terms, but in the narrator’s words and voice. At times another narrative technique can be observed: the perceptions described by the narrator are interspersed with the focaliser’s own thoughts. These are sometimes presented in separate sections; if Sillanpää had developed further in this direction, he would easily have arrived at the interior monologue. But the most natural road for him was the interleaving of narrative and the experience of the character at the focus.

By interleaving the narrator’s contribution and the thoughts of the character something essential can be brought out: a moment of consciousness. Questions and discoveries rise from deep in the unconscious, indeterminately, but through them something ripens and matures in the characters that cannot be expressed in the same way through external statements. Using this typical narrative trick, Sillanpää is able to give expression to nuances of the human mind, subtle shadings of colour, half-tones, in whose analysis and setting down on paper he rises above all earlier Finnish writers. What are the origins of the theoretical foundations of Sillanpää’s concept of the human character? One perspective was offered him by his years as a student of biology. The development of his view of humanity was also influenced, in his youth, by the philosopher Eino Kaila, the apostle of depth-psychology in Finland, and the doctor Yrjö Kulovesi, the first Finnish-language apologist of psychoanalysis.

Sillanpää’s treatment of the human character was, indeed, for many years labelled as psychoanalytical. It is undoubtedly possible to find traces of psychoanalysis in the fact that one of the strong basic forces that motivates Sillanpää’s characters is sexuality; another typical characteristic is his interest in childhood experiences and the emphasis he places on their importance, as in the short story Kertomus järvestä (‘A story about a lake’). Inherited from Maurice Maeterlinck are the favourite, almost mystically coloured, words of the young Sillanpää, ‘destiny’ and ‘soul’.

In his concept of humanity, with its stress on the complex layers of the personality and the strength of its basic forces, Sillanpää is part of the narrative art of the period, of the great stream whose inspiration came from Freud and the new depth psychology. Its influences can also be seen in the work of Joyce, Woolf, Mann, Hesse, Proust and Gide.

The problem of time concerns him throughout his entire work. Elämä ja aurinko and the last complete work of his later creative period, Ihmiset suviyössä (‘People in the summer night’, 1934) are characterised by this very concern with the passing of time. Miehen tie follows the pattern of the seasons. Elokuu (‘Au­gust’, 1941) deals with the events of a single day and night.

The passage of time was the object of the attention of many other writers in Finland. Maria Jotuni and Joel Lehtonen set their works Arkielämää (‘Ordinary life’) and Putkinotko (1909 and 1919–20) within the limits of twenty-four hours, and Volter Kilpi conducted the most ambitious time experiment in Finnish literature in his novel Alastalon salissa (‘In the parlour at Alastalo’, 1933). The problem of time exercises the well-known European writers of the day still more. In France the first to deal with it was Marcel Proust in his novel series A la recherche du temps perdu. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a one-day novel, just as is Virginia Woolfs Mrs Dalloway. Thomas Mann freezes Hans Castorp’s time at seven years in his novel Der Zauberberg. Taking into account the year of publication of Sillanpää’s first novel, 1916, it is possible to argue that at least in this respect he has a place in the international context.

The question of time has an important place in all Sillanpää’s youthful work. Lauri Viljanen has distinguished three concepts of time in Sillanpää’s work: cosmic, biological and historical. In Hurskas kurjuus (‘Meek heritage’, 1919) Juha Toivola, living out his biological time, comes into collision with historical time in the shape of the events of 1918, which he cannot, in the context of biological time, comprehend. Elämä ja aurinko is full of time play, which Professor Annamari Sarajas took as the title of a pointed essay on the subject: ‘Time, what is it? There is no such thing.’ In the novel the experience of time is bound to the person who is travelling through it, just as in Eino Kaila’s essay on Bergson, and it is demonstrated that the individual and the little insect that has fallen into the pollen of a flower live in different times, that ‘the same time passing in the minds of the captor and the captive are so very different in shortness or length.’ The narrator adds: ‘It raises doubts as to the value of the concept of time. Or are there as many times as passers of time?’

When concepts of time of this nature are set out using the techniques of narrative, the parallel and interior qualities of phenomena are emphasised. Sillanpää is keen to describe events simultaneously, emphasising the fact that they happen at the same moment.

It is usual to trace, in discussing these time novels, the common influence of the philosopher Henri Bergson. This is certainly true in the case of Sillanpää. He became familiar with Bergson’s ideas through Eino Kaila, who had studied Bergson’s work and published articles on it in 1911 and 1912.

Apart from Bergson’s concept about the internal time of the individual, the stream of time, duration – la durée – many other cornerstones of his philosophy are familiar to readers of Sillanpää. Among the other central ideas of Bergson’s philosophy are an almost mystical intuition, self-knowledge and the élan vital. In fact, Sillanpää’s concept of personality is derived just as much from Bergson’s philosophy as from depth psychology, if not more. Bergson’s philosophy of art is equally important to him, a philosophy that emphasised that it was the purpose of art to penetrate behind language, ‘to reach some of the rhythms of life and its breathing, which are more secret in the individual than his or her most secret emotions’ (Le rire). Sillanpää is after something of the same kind in his attempt to make contact with the ‘basic person’ who is ‘purely internal’, ‘eternally unchanging’.

In two respects, then, Sillanpää can hold his own among his European contemporaries: as an adaptor of the depth psychological concept of personality and as an exponent of the Bergsonian concept of time. Differences, too, are apparent: his attachment to country surroundings and deep-rooted peasant philosophy may already seem distant to Finnish readers, as may the rather sentimental tone that appears in places. His lavish descriptions of nature may be a little overwhelming – although it is my guess that they may yet be valued as pollution dulls the skies of Europe, poisons its forests and dims its waters. As a nature lyricist Sillanpää has unquestionably great moments.

One feature of Sillanpää’s narrative has often seemed old-fashioned, even painful: the narrator’s intervention in the train of events in the form of plentiful explanations and comments. These have been interpreted as the writer’s own voice, in which he explains things as if he were standing inside or beside his works, lecturing and pointing out things of interest.

The latest study of narrative technique has, nevertheless, given interest to areas that were previously largely ignored, whose study changes opinion and makes passages previously criticised as narrator’s comments interesting in a new way. I mean the phenomena which are now known by the terms metafiction and intertextuality.

Metafiction is literature which ponders or comments upon its own existence or birth. One of its forms is the so-called self-conscious fiction, or works in which the narrative process itself is made the object of attention. Intertextuality, on the other hand, means the interleaving of text, the quotation of or referral to earlier texts in new connections. One form of intertextuality which at the same time involves self-conscious narrative is quotation or variation upon the writer’s own earlier texts.

One characteristic of self-conscious text is apparent in nearly all Sillanpää’s works: at the beginning of each novel he announces at once how it is going to end. ‘The life of Silja, a beautiful young country girl, ended about a week after midsummer while the summer was still young,’ reads the beginning of Nuorena nukkunut (published in English both as Fallen asleep while young and The Maid Silja, 1931). Juha Toivola’s execution is announced on the second page of Hurskas kurjuus, Hiltu’s drowning on the third page of Hiltu ja Ragnar (‘Hiltu and Ragnar’, 1923).

The author may also refer to the moment of writing and its conditions or announce changes in perspective. The ‘beginning chapter’ that follows the prologue of Elämä ja aurinko starts as follows: ‘The poem of summer begins. The stage of the events to come is already mapped out.’ The adoption of a bird’s eye view in the middle of the novel happens equally self-consciously: ‘Pause. Let the poem rise from the tangle of the bushes to the top of the pale sky of midnight. From thence many things can be seen and – what is most important – from a pleasant distance.’

The most extraordinary manoeuvre of all takes places at the end of the novel. A new character is introduced in the epilogue, a poet, who ‘had heard about the female main characters of this book on different evenings’. The poet becomes interested in the affair and travels to the country to meet the girl in the story, although when he arrives he begins to doubt ‘whether the places in the story existed at all’. At the very end the narrative leaves the poet and repeats, as in a musical finale, the novel’s central visions of nature, with a final comment directed at the reader: ‘You will think you see this kind of thing if you imagine, with your eyes shut, yourself sitting in some high place in the cold moonlight of this final chapter.’ It is a typical metafictional game of hide and seek – and the year, remember, is 1916.

The passages in which Sillanpää refers to his own earlier work are generally to be interpreted as intertextuality. Juha Toivola from Hurskas kurjuus makes an appearance in Nuorena nukkunut, together with Kalle, familiar from the same novel and from the short story Niemisen perhe (‘The Nieminen family’). One of Sillanpää’s most daring narrative tricks occurs in his last, unfinished novel, Ihmiselon ihanuus ja kurjuus (‘The loveliness and wretchedness of human existence’, 1945). Its main character is Martti Hongisto, a well-known writer whose work is appreciated abroad who, driven by internal unrest, leaves home to meet the love of his youth. It is possible to discern in him a sort of idealised self-portrait, an alter ego, until another writer, the drunken E.V. Suokselma, steps on to the stage, also recognisable as a self-portrait, but seen from a different angle, with different emphases of criticism and humour.

So – does Sillanpää fit in to the bounds of this time, into the international group of leading writers of the day? I should answer, yes and no. He can hardly be featured in the ‘top ten’; in terms of novelistic technique, Volter Kilpi undoubtedly comes closer. In his concepts of personality and time and through his Bergsonian background, Sillanpää is sometimes reminiscent of them. What is surprising, on the other hand, is that the narrative features of his work that have long been considered old-fashioned open up a route from his own time to our own.

At the very least they demonstrate that Sillanpää’s extraordinary first work, Elämä ja aurinko, can be seen in a new and unexpected light as nothing less than a ‘self-conscious’ novel.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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